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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

And the Games begin… slower, lower, quieter, unflagging

Express in Tokyo: It was surreal outside the National Stadium, sombre and strange inside. Roughly a thousand people lined up on the narrow lane leading to the cavernous facility.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Tokyo |
Updated: July 24, 2021 7:33:38 am
tokyo olympicsIt was surreal outside the National Stadium during the opening ceremony at the 2020 Summer Olympics. (AP Photo)

At 8 pm sharp local time Friday, the lights dimmed and the fireworks went off. And the country obsessed with punctuality could finally begin the Olympic Games a year later than originally scheduled.

It was surreal outside the National Stadium, sombre and strange inside. Roughly a thousand people lined up on the narrow lane leading to the cavernous facility. They have been banned from entering the stadium during the Olympics because of the sharp rise in Covid-19 cases — so, the Tokyoites jammed the streets.

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They waved at every bus heading in the direction of the stadium, posed in front of the rings, and clicked pictures every time the pyrotechnics went off from the roof. A Japanese flag hung from the window of an adjoining building and right below, a lone Indian man, seemingly in his late-20s, milled about carrying a message of support for the country’s 120 athletes. In the distance, the imposing Tokyo Tower shone bright in the Olympic colours.

There were protesters, too. Not in huge numbers but loud enough to be heard inside the stadium. Every time there was a lull in the music, the protesters outside could be heard. “Go to hell, IOC!” they chanted, directing their anger at the International Olympic Committee, who, let’s just say, aren’t too popular here.

Protesters against the 2020 Summer Olympics gather outside the National Stadium, before the opening ceremony starts at the 2020 Summer Olympics. (AP Photo)

These sharply-defined emotions were felt inside the stadium, too.

There wasn’t any synchronised banging of the drums, like at Beijing 2008. Nor the rib-tickling humour of Rowan Atkinson from the London Olympics. And neither was it the one big party that Rio threw, which made the city forget all its problems in the lead-up.

This was a muted, pensive ceremony with dark backdrops that only got gloomier after Seiko Hashimoto, the Tokyo 2020 president, welled up during her speech. Hashimoto, seven-time Olympian, was born in 1964, the year Tokyo hosted what is regarded as one of the greatest Games ever. She promised the athletes they will “remember this moment forever”.

You feel for them, especially the Japanese players who feel as if their biggest moment of glory has been snatched. “I understand that we all have mixed feelings about this one… In any circumstances, your support will make us move,” badminton player Kento Momota, who ran with the torch during the ceremony, wrote in an open letter on the morning of the opening ceremony.

The Olympic flame burns during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics. (AP Photo)

It’s not just him. Brett Larner, a Tokyo-based athlete manager, says this has been a “tricky” period for Japan’s Olympians, who do not want to be seen as tone deaf. “The athletes have had to be more cautious about how they talk about their feelings,” Larner, whose athletes will compete in track and field events, says. “There’s a chance that many think they’ll bring themselves to public criticism.”

For the thousands of others, there was no holding back. They entered the arena waving their flags, smiling and dancing and taking selfies. The Indian contingent, led by the legendary Mary Kom and hockey captain Manpreet Singh – for the first time, the Olympics has one male and one female flag bearer for each nation – strutted out in their trademark blue blazers. A lot is expected of them this time, and on the first day itself, multiple medal prospects in shooting, weightlifting and archery will be in action.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony – Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan – July 23, 2021. Flagbearers Harmanpreet Singh and Mary Kom Hmangte of India lead their contingent in the athletes parade during the opening ceremony. (Reuters)

But the onus will be on the Japanese athletes to turn around the mood of a nation that has grown frustrated by these Games.

“Once the sports begin, the focus will shift,” says Hiko Saemon, a 45-year-old IT professional. “I like sports, and I want it to be a good event for the athletes and volunteers, who made it happen. I still think it’s a mistake.”

That is the nature of this beast. Beset by conflicting ideals and extreme emotions, 11,000 of the world’s finest athletes will begin their fight for 339 gold medals.

You could feel the shift in mood the moment tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the cauldron. After all the troubled build-up, it will be inevitable that the sheer intensity and drama will draw us all in. Like moths to a flame.

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